President’s speeches, letters, and articles
Inaugural Address, John R. Kroger
Friday, September 21, 2012
You can’t be a Reedie, I always felt, unless you took Humanities 110. And so for the past three or four weeks I’ve been taking Hum 110 with my fellow classmates in the new first-year class. But, as Brian Moore ’13, president of the student body, so helpfully pointed out, before you can take Hum 110 you have to be admitted to Reed. And before you get admitted to Reed, you have to do one very important thing. You have to write an admission essay called “Why Reed?”
Following people online I’ve realized that this essay is often referred to as “WR” and that it is a subject of much debate amongst high school seniors wanting to go to Reed. They realize that somehow you’re supposed to capture the essence of what might make you a Reedie. And, in fact, they’re right, because it’s one of those essays that our admission staff pours over to try to figure out whether, out of this giant collection of really brainy people, an applicant has what it takes to be a Reedie. And so what I want to do briefly tonight is give you my own oral version of my “Why Reed” application essay.
I want to tell you a little bit about why I’m so excited to be here at Reed College. I want to talk a little bit about why Reed matters to the world. And I want to talk a little bit about what makes Reed such a special place in our country’s educational life. So forgive me if I share a little biography for a moment.
I grew up in Houston, Texas, and I went to a public high school. In some ways, it was a good public high school. I asked our admission staff whether they recruit there, and they said, “Oh it’s a very good school, but it’s too conservative for us.” I have to say that my high school drove me crazy, and it was in part because it just wasn’t the kind of education I wanted. And as I got closer to senior year and began to talk with my parents about what kind of education I would pursue, I realized that the kind of education they foresaw for me was not the kind of education I wanted.
My parents, very pragmatic people, were looking very much, like most parents do today, at things like cost, and things like practical careers. They wanted me to go to the University of Houston and study accounting. And I just knew I was going to be a horrible accountant. So I wound up doing something very different instead. I wound up enlisting in the United States Marine Corps rather than going to college at all. And three years later I wound up at Yale. I was so fortunate at Yale to be in a program called “Directed Studies.” Directed Studies is sort of the closest that a big place like Yale can get to try to artificially recreate what happens at Reed everyday. Directed Studies was a course for one hundred freshman, and instead of large lecture courses typical of Yale, you got to meet one on one with faculty members, in small groups or at a conference table. The curriculum was very fixed in classical texts and important texts from the Enlightenment, in history and political theory and literature. And every week we had a paper due. I owe so much of what has happened in my life since then to the opportunity to be in that program.
For one thing, it taught me how to write. I had gone to a high school where people did not write papers. It was just not part of our high school life. You took tests, you filled out what used to be called Scantron sheets, automated sheets—yes, those bring back memories don’t they? But you didn’t write papers, and so when I got to Yale I had no idea how to write a college paper. It’s an experience I think some of my Hum 110 counterparts this year have been experiencing themselves. Some of them have written many papers in high school, some have written none. And so they’re here learning what it means to write an academic paper.
But I got more from that education than a sort of very practical set of skills on how to write and talk about ideas. Part of it was that I fell in love with philosophy. For me, philosophy very quickly became much more than a subject, much more than a discipline, much more than my major, it became my way of life. It became the way I looked at the world, how I understood the world, the lens that I used to try to make sense of my own life and the world around me. And Yale really fostered this in a way that probably very few institutions in this country would. I was so fortunate because at Yale you’re mostly in giant lecture courses, and I had the opportunity to sit in these small seminar rooms with philosophy professors. And they had the time—which most people at big research universities do not have—they actually had the time to spend one-on-one with students, trying to nurture a young mind that was very, very hungry for knowledge.
More than that, for the first time in my life I felt like I was at home. I had the experience I think a lot of Reedies have growing up as the brainy somewhat odd individual in high school, a little out of touch with a lot of high school life. And that was the first time I had peers, and a peer group who really understood the world as I did, who cared about the arts, who cared about the life of the mind, who cared about great writing, and who wanted to spend their time talking about those very things. Not just going to sporting events, not just participating in college social life. So when I found myself with the opportunity, out of the blue, to come to Reed College, it was really the most exciting thing that has happened to me in my adult life, because this is a place that has some of those same virtues that I had in my undergraduate education, but in a much more pure, much more committed, much more focused way.
Reed College, what can I say about it? I revere Reed College. Reed College is a place that was founded by intellectuals, scholars, and artists who would be committed to the idea that our intellectual life comes first and that our life as scholars may have some practical value but also has deep aesthetic and spiritual values that are, at the end of the day, what really drives us to study these fields. So the idea of being able to come to a place like this and help nurture and protect it was just extraordinarily precious and exciting to me.
I say “nurture and protect” with some thought to what lies ahead—not just for Reed, but for liberal arts colleges in general. We live in a period of time when the ideal of the liberal arts college is somewhat under siege. It’s under siege because of issues of access, because of issues of technology, and because of issues of academic philosophy and culture. And I want to say a few words about each of these, because how we respond as a community, how Reed responds as a community to these three challenges will say a lot about how we prosper or don’t in the coming years.
Access. College is getting so expensive and increasingly people are being told that a liberal arts education is out of reach for most ordinary American families. Reed has responded remarkably to this through the generosity of alumni. From the generosity of our trustees, Reed has been able to pour a massive amount of money into financial aid. Right now, on the Reed College campus, 50 percent of our students are receiving financial aid.
Even more telling are Pell Grant recipients—students who are receiving, like I did in college, a federal grant to help finance their education. This year we have, as a percentage, two-and-a-half times as many Pell Grant recipients in our freshman class as Harvard College has in theirs. And that shows that Reed is really walking the walk when it comes to access to education.
But as time goes on, we’re going to have to do more and more, and one of the things I’m really excited about is working with everyone in the community to make sure that a Reed education is available not just to a relatively small number of rich and privileged people, but to anyone who wants to come here.
Higher education has also been tying itself up in knots the last couple of years because of technology. That was symbolized, I think, most deeply for me, by what happened at the University of Virginia this past year, when the board of trustees temporarily fired the president because the president was, in their eyes, unenthusiastic about internet-based distance learning as a business model. Look, technology is our friend and technology can do amazing things in the classroom. In Humanities 110 this past week, we’ve been studying the Egyptian temples at Carnac, and one of the things circulated to the students was this incredible online visual resource where you can take a virtual tour around the temples of Carnac. It’s a lovely thing. It’s a great thing to make what is being talked about in lecture and conference come to life.
But we should not make any mistake: education is not passive. Perhaps if your model of education is 700 or 800 students sitting in a lecture hall listening, you might believe that education can be delivered over the internet. But education, for me, is interactive. Education, for me, happens in the conference when students are talking amongst themselves. Education happens when people after class are getting together to talk about the ideas that really inspire them. These are things that the internet cannot deliver. And one thing I think we have to do in the coming years is more forcefully articulate our vision of education as a human and social endeavor, one that can’t simply be reduced to a business model that labels efficiency as its highest goal.
And, finally, academic culture. We live in a country where higher education, I would say, is in some ways on a really misguided trajectory. We live in a country where most people care a lot more about the performance of their college’s football team than they do about their college’s physics department. And I, for one, am really psyched to be at a place where we don’t have a football team but we have an awesome physics department.
People say these days, lots of people, that the liberal arts are not practical enough. That people need to be trained for their first job. And that the liberal arts, however nice or lofty or idealistic, can’t train the workforce we need for the coming century. This idea of education is horribly misguided. Because at the end of the day, what I think this world needs is more people who are capable of truly critical thought, of truly critical rigorous analysis. People who are creative and can think outside of the box. People who have what Eugene O’Neill called “the touch of a poet.” A little bit of that creative and rebellious spirit that brings change to our world. In short, I think the most practical education one can have is an education that does not prepare your for your first job, but that prepares you for the next 60 years of your life. And I am so certain that the most practical thing for the United States to embrace now is a world not just with more liberal arts graduates, but a world with more Reedies. Because who better exemplifies the kind of spirit America is going to need in the coming century than the creative, gifted, brilliant students and alumni of Reed College.
The reason I’m excited to be here at Reed is a very simple one. Throughout my entire life what’s mattered most to me has been the life of the mind. I’ve already, I think, received something of a deserved reputation on campus for using that phrase too much. And it’s with some regret that I see it now calligraphed in front of me. In true Reed fashion, it’s both a tribute and kind of a sarcastic parody. But for me, that really is what is most special. I’ll tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like mediocrity, I don’t like settling, I don’t like people who are not passionate about what they do.
For the last two-and-a-half months, I’ve been so fortunate to be here at Reed. The reception that I have received from the staff, the students, and the faculty has been overwhelming. I’ve been truly touched by how kind and how welcoming and how gracious everyone has been. And, like I felt those first few weeks at college when for the first time in my life I felt a real sense of community, this last two-and-half months—for the first time in decades—I have felt like I’m part of a community that really shares my values and cares about the things I most love. So I will tell you that this day means more to me than you can possibly imagine. And there is no honor greater than to be a colleague and a fellow Reedie with all of you. There is nothing more exciting to me than helping everyone—our staff, our faculty, and students and alumni—to try to make Reed even more fantastic than it already is.
I guess I’ll leave you with one last thought. There are too many great friends and family here to thank all of them in person, but I do want to say, very much, “thank you” to my wife, Michele, and my son, Isaiah, who are here. Isaiah is often the best source of wisdom in my life. I’ll just share with you one little anecdote from Isaiah’s and my life. When I was interviewing for the Reed College position, I didn’t tell Isaiah that I was going to do it. We’ve had a lot of change in our lives and I didn’t think we needed to add one more thing into his life, another life change, if it wasn’t going to happen. But when I was offered the job I realized I needed to tell him that I would be doing something else with my day job. And so I told Isaiah that I was going to be the next president of Reed College. My son said immediately, “That’s awesome! We have to live near campus!” And I said, “Gosh, that’s a really interesting reaction. Why?” And he responded—and I’ve never been happier or more proud as a parent—he immediately responded, “We can hang out with more intellectual people.”
This is an awesome community. This is an awesome college. Someone mentioned my love of the Boston Red Socks, which is true, but this experience makes me think of another legend from another team. Tommy Lasorda was the great long-time manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Every spring training he would get all of the Dodgers in training camp, line them up, and make everyone by turn utter one phrase—and they weren’t allowed to leave the field until they’d uttered it with enough conviction to impress Tommy Lasorda. The phrase you had to utter was, “I love the Los Angeles Dodgers.” What Lasorda was getting at was, I think, there’s something very important about articulating that which you care most about. And that in this life—we’ve only got one of them—we should be associated with institutions that we are very proud of and that we care deeply about. I can tell you that I’ve always had deep respect for Reed College. Over the last couple of months that respect has deepened, and so I’ll leave you with one last thought, which is, “I love Reed College!”
Thank you very much.